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Data shows rural areas' population dropping in Arkansas and nationwide

by Tess Vrbin | August 16, 2021 at 7:15 a.m.
Downtown Helena-West Helena is shown in this Sept. 30, 2020, file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Rural counties both in Arkansas and nationwide saw their populations mostly decline over the last decade, according to census data released last week.

Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas metropolitan areas both grew, and outside those two regions Jonesboro saw the largest percent increase in population of any city with more than 5,000 people as of last year.

Counties outside those areas, in large part, saw losses.

Census results, which usually are delivered months earlier, will be used by the state Board of Apportionment to redraw legislative districts. They also dictate how federal dollars will be distributed for the next 10 years.

Cities and counties throughout the Delta took some of the largest population hits, according to the data. Helena-West Helena saw the largest decline any Arkansas city with more than 5,000 people, losing 22.5%, or 2,763 residents, between April 1, 2010 and April 1, 2020. The city's new population is 9,519, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some Delta region officials, including the mayors of West Memphis and Helena-West Helena, said there should be a recount because the covid-19 pandemic made it difficult to collect accurate data.

[Explore 2020 census data » arkansasonline.com/2020censusdata/]

"People didn't want to open up doors and really talk," West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon said. "We have a 30% population of poverty here, and some people aren't very technically savvy. A lot of people [also] just don't trust the government."

Census data show 1,725 fewer West Memphis residents in 2020 than in 2010, a 6.6% drop. However, McClendon said the number of utility meters in the city has increased, indicating a rise in population.

He said the city's population must have been vastly under-counted instead of dropping from 26,245 to 24,520.

"A lot of it comes to the lack of educating people and understanding that the census is to help us and not to pry into your personal business," McClendon said. "I think they don't understand the importance of the census and how much federal dollars depend on those numbers."

Helena-West Helena Mayor Kevin Smith, a former state senator, said during Thursday's Board of Apportionment meeting that he believed the census data was historically flawed and a recount is necessary.

Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson agreed that the pandemic created "a train wreck for trying to count the population" and said a recount is "certainly something that's worth looking into."

Blytheville and Osceola, the two Mississippi County seats, both recorded population losses of more than 10%. Blytheville lost 2,214 people, or 14.2% of the population, and Osceola lost 781 people, or 10.1%. Their populations are 13,406 and 6,976, respectively.

Pine Bluff recorded 7,830 fewer people from 2010 to 2020. It slid from the state's ninth-largest city to the 10th-largest, and it had the second-largest percent decrease in a municipality with more than 5,000 people, with 16%. Pine Bluff's population is now listed as 41,523.

Mayor Shirley Washington said Saturday in an email that she expected a drop in the city's population based on census estimates provided over the past decade. She added that she could not say whether the population might have been under-counted before fully analyzing the data.

"The decline in our population is not as large as we feared it might be," she said. "This may provide some indication that our efforts to rebuild Pine Bluff over the past few years have helped retain population."

Hope also experienced a notable population drop, from 10,095 to 8,952, or an 11.3% loss.

The numbers do not necessarily reflect actual growth in the Hope area, assistant city manager J.R. Wilson said, but the reason would not be an under-count of the population within city limits.

"You have to take into consideration with small towns like Hope [that] some of our growth occurs right outside our city limits, and that doesn't really get taken into account without annexation," Wilson said.

Overall, Arkansas added 95,606 residents last decade, climbing from 2,915,918 to 3,011,524. Without the boost of 105,800 people in Benton and Washington counties, the state would have experienced its first drop in population since the 1960 census.

Nelson said he is aware that some Mississippi County residents have moved to Northwest Arkansas in the past decade.

Cities and regions that experienced population loss, such as Mississippi and Jefferson counties, are focusing on making their areas more appealing to young adults who have been moving to urban areas with more amenities.

"I don't think our population here particularly wants to be another Northwest Arkansas or a large area," Nelson said. "We're looking toward straightening up our communities, cleaning them up and dressing them up."

Pine Bluff and Jefferson County have been working to revitalize Pine Bluff's Main Street and make the city more walkable, said Allison Thompson, president of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County. The Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce is a division of the Alliance.

"The initiatives for the future are more opportunities for living downtown, which is what we're seeing as a nation [that] more people want," Thompson said.

While most cities and counties in the Delta and Northeast regions lost population, Jonesboro and Paragould and their respective counties, Craighead and Greene, saw sizable growth.

Jonesboro remained the state's fifth-largest city and gained 11,313 people, a 16.8% increase, for a total of 78,576 people. Paragould grew 13.1% and now has 29,537 people.

Jonesboro Public Information Officer Bill Campbell said the city has been establishing itself as the hub of Northeast Arkansas. He cited good education and health care systems as draws to the city, including the addition of an osteopathic medical school at Arkansas State University in 2016.

"If you look at the historical data, we tend to grow by more than 10% every decade, but I think it's becoming more pronounced," Campbell said. "We have the lowest sales tax of any of the largest cities in the state. We have a low cost of living. We don't charge for sanitation, [and] we have probably the lowest utility rates in the state."

Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver formed the Northeast Arkansas Mayors Caucus in March. The caucus aims to combine the collective resources of several Northeast Arkansas municipalities to enhance the region, Campbell said, with goals like new trail systems, expanded broadband internet access and improved flood mitigation.

"It's a 'raising all boats' philosophy, and it's one of the mayor's primary objectives to make the region more significant in the view of the state," Campbell said.

CORRECTION: Due to a calculation error, an earlier version of this article had several incorrect percentages. Between 2010 and 2020, Helena-West Helena lost 22.5% of its residents; West Memphis had a 6.6% drop; Blytheville lost 14.2% of its population; Osceola lost 10.1%; Pine Bluff 16%; Hope 11.3%; Jonesboro had a 16.8% increase; Paragould grew 13.1%.

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